How Biden’s Stutter Offered This Group a Messaging Opportunity

When presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was mocked for his stuttering during a debate, the National Stuttering Association saw it as a chance to educate the public and help reduce the stigma against the condition.

When an association’s key issue turns up on the public stage, they need to know how to quickly leverage those moments and provide a thoughtful response if needed.

That’s the position the National Stuttering Association found itself in back in December when former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders mocked former Vice President Joe Biden for stuttering during a presidential debate.

While the mocking could have gone unnoticed by the wider media, Gerald Maguire, NSA board chair and chair of the Psychiatry and Neuroscience department at the University of California-Riverside School of Medicine, heard about it and responded immediately.

“I am very open about my stuttering, so one of my students alerted me, and I got right onto Google and found the story,” Maguire said. “I got in touch with my PR team, and we got out there. We got on social media immediately. We posted on Facebook, and our PR [person], Sarah Armstrong, sent out an announcement.”

Being able to respond quickly requires knowing about the story, which is why Maguire recommends associations maintain a strong network and create a response plan. “My advice is to partner with an excellent PR team to monitor the press and social media and designate a rapid response team to be ready to act promptly,” he said.

Even after the breaking of the Sanders-Biden story, NSA was able to keep its mission in the news cycle after Biden spoke about his experience as a person who stutter during a CNN Presidential Town Hall earlier this month. That provided an opportunity to not only talk about the initial incident but also about the importance of recognizing there should be no stigma associated with stuttering. Maguire said since responding to Biden’s stutter attacks, he has been interviewed often about the issue and NSA is getting its message out there.

“We want people to understand that stuttering is a neurological condition,” Maguire said. “We are not inherently anxious. Look us straight in the eyes, wait for us to complete the sentence. Don’t try to finish the words for us, and have understanding and compassion, just like you would with someone who has a broken leg. We are as capable as anyone.”

Using Biden as an example has been helpful, Maguire said, because he “has said very positive things: how he has accomplished so much in spite of his stuttering.”

However, not all people who’ve overcome issues with stuttering are as helpful with promoting positive examples for stutterers and can sometimes share incorrect information. During those times, an association may also need to speak up.

Two years ago, for example, talk show host Steve Harvey, who said he had a serious stutter as a child, provided an audience member with stuttering information that several organizations, including NSA, decried as incorrect. Harvey suggested stuttering was just a psychological problem easily cured. In that instance, Maguire said NSA felt it important to get the correct information out there: that stuttering is a neurological condition, and while it can be significantly improved, there is no cure.

“There is still a lot of misinformation about stuttering,” he said. “We want to clear up misinformation, if someone says something that is incorrect.”

How has your organization been able to relate a current event to your key issue to further public awareness? Share in the comments.

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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